“You just don’t understand.”
If you’re the parent of a teenager, you’ve probably heard this phrase more than a few times. You’ve probably felt frustrated when your attempts to connect with your children have seemed only to drive them away. But teenagers can also experience frustration when they try to communicate with their parents. They may feel as though they are alone in their struggles or that they have failed to measure up.
What do Latter-day Saint youth really wish their parents knew about what it’s like to be a teenager today? Based on teens’ responses to this question, three major themes capture their most common concerns:
Fearing that they will be misunderstood
Feeling confused about standards (especially when it comes to dating)
Dealing with pressure to meet overwhelmingly high expectations
As President Russell M. Nelson said in a worldwide devotional, the rising generation is the hope of Israel: “Heavenly Father has reserved many of His most noble spirits—perhaps, I might say, His finest team—for this final phase. Those noble spirits—those finest players, those heroes—are you!”1 Young men and young women truly have the capacity to change the world in incredible ways, both small and great.
So, how can parents help youth attain their full potential as they navigate the frustrations and fears of adolescence?
Think back to when you were a teenager. Chances are, you thought your parents’ generation was completely unfamiliar with the challenges yours had to face. The same is true of teens today. For example, John S., a young man from Michigan, USA, said, “I think it’s important that parents understand how much technology has changed social life. Honestly, there’s not all that much face-to-face conversation unless you’re actually at school. Once you go home, it’s almost expected of you that you’re talking with people all the time [using technology].” Technology has changed the social landscape of the world. Youth today navigate various social media platforms, entertainment channels, and sources of information available at their fingertips in an instant. They feel that parents do not understand either the challenges or the blessings of communication in the digital age.
But are parents and teenagers really all that different? Though it seems to each new generation that their challenges are unique, common threads run through the experiences of teens in every age: the desire for belonging, the desire to be understood, and the desire to figure out their place in the world. Technology influences the way these desires are expressed, but so do relationships at school, home, and church. Grandparents, parents, and children have all experienced the confusion and heartache that accompany these desires. Parents and teenagers are more alike than they may think, but the fear of being misunderstood prevents many teenagers from being open with their parents.
Brayden F., a young man from Texas, USA, observed, “I’ve had certain conversations with my parents where I found out that they are just like me. They’ve gone through the same things that I’m going through, but they hadn’t shared those insights with me before, so I didn’t feel like I had anyone to talk to about my experiences.” As appropriate, parents can share trials they faced and overcame as teenagers. How did you deal with your desire to belong? to be understood? to figure out your place in the world?
Kenna A., a young woman from Wyoming, USA, wants parents to understand that sharing their experiences can help teens: “We don’t just want to hear what you were good at. We also want to hear what was hard for you so that we can feel like we’re not a failure all the time.” Understanding that they are not alone when they make mistakes and that there is hope to overcome trials can be immensely comforting for teens. These types of conversations can strengthen relationships between parents and children.
Many teenagers also wish to do their best to follow the standards they have been taught as members of the Church, but they’re sometimes confused about different interpretations they’ve heard.
For example, how should youth follow the counsel to avoid going on frequent dates with the same person? Some worry about learning how to build healthy dating relationships if they are not allowed to have a boyfriend or girlfriend. And they worry about maintaining their standards while developing the qualities that will be needed for successful dating and marriage relationships later in life.
Take the time to talk with your children about the standards you expect them to follow in your family. Teach them about what is appropriate in dating at this stage of their lives. Help them understand that it is important to follow prophetic counsel because it keeps us spiritually, physically, and mentally safe.
There are many reasons why prophets have given us the standards in the For the Strength of Youth booklet. For one, teens who begin to date someone exclusively at a younger age have higher rates of alcohol and drug use, lower levels of academic achievement,2 greater susceptibility to peer pressure, and a greater risk of breaking the law of chastity.3 Casual dating and group dating instead allow teenagers to develop the emotional, physical, and spiritual maturity to prepare to date seriously in young adulthood. Making friends with members of the opposite sex and discovering traits they admire will help teens make wise decisions in dating and marriage later on.
Following the counsel in For the Strength of Youth is more than just following a list of dos and don’ts. It’s about being a light to the world as true disciples of Jesus Christ. Maybe it’s not popular to wear modest clothing or to avoid exclusive dating in high school, but President Nelson has counseled youth: “Set a standard for the rest of the world! Embrace being different! The booklet entitled For the Strength of Youth should be your standard.”4
At times, teenagers feel that overwhelming expectations have been thrust upon them in every aspect of their lives. From their appearance and personality to their athletic and academic abilities to their testimonies and Church activity, they feel the pressure to live up to increasingly high expectations.
Many teenagers feel this burden weighing heavily on them. They fear that they can’t measure up. They may think that they are complete failures when they make mistakes instead of seeing mistakes as learning experiences. These thought patterns can contribute to depression and anxiety or even just resentment toward the sources of those expectations.
To admit that they failed to live up to an expectation puts teens in a vulnerable position. They know they are subject to criticism or punishment, so many choose instead to conceal their mistakes or act out in other ways. They fear the shame of disapproval at a time when they could really use some extra love and understanding.
Teens could greatly benefit from being able to talk about their problems more openly. Keep the lines of communication open so your teenagers know they can come to you in good times and bad. Here are a few things teenagers mentioned their parents could do to help:5
Instead of reacting, immediately offering advice, or growing impatient, seek first to listen and understand the situation.
Talk to your teenagers about both your expectations for them and their own goals.
Help them set realistic expectations for themselves that are in line with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Communicate love and acceptance. Children need to hear words of comfort from their parents.
Take their concerns seriously—things that may seem insignificant to you may be incredibly important to them.
Above all, remember to keep things in perspective. Zak M. from California, USA, said, “We’re not always going to be perfect. Sometimes in school we’re going to end up getting B’s. But we have to realize that our spirit can’t be represented with a grade. And while we need to have high expectations and set goals for ourselves, we need to realize that what’s more important than getting a good grade is doing well spiritually and doing well mentally instead of stressing ourselves out with unrealistic expectations.”
Although parents and teenagers may struggle to understand each other, each of us is perfectly known and understood and loved by Jesus Christ. We can follow His example by truly seeking to love and communicate with one another. The most important thing to share with teenagers is that the Atonement of Jesus Christ covers everything. If they have broken a commandment, they can repent. If they have made a mistake, they can try again. If they feel misunderstood, hurt, rejected, or broken, they can find peace in knowing that they never walk alone in their trials. The Savior walked through it all before, and He is walking alongside them now.